I'm a doubting teenager

My experience contradicts what I have been taught. I feel guilty and alone.

Published January 18, 2008 11:38AM (EST)

Dear Reader,

Please read this thoughtful, well-written question from a high school student and imagine growing up in her house with her parents. Try to see the world through her eyes. She didn't ask to be raised by the people who raised her. She didn't ask to start having doubts about what they taught her. But she was, and she is.

Remember when you first doubted what your parents had always told you? Remember when your beliefs stopped giving you comfort and started filling you with doubt? Remember high school? I do.

Dear Cary,

I'm a high school student and I'm experiencing a habitual and hidden internal conflict. I live with both my parents, who are both fairly conservative. My mom is a religious Christian who has taught me values based on Christianity. And until recently, I accepted her views and saw myself as a conservative as well. About a year ago, I started developing different social and political values. I'm not really sure what happened, but somehow I became more liberal. Silently, I started questioning the ideas my mother instilled into me.

The way I see the world has changed. Suddenly, people who were "degenerate" aren't so sinful anymore. I listened to degenerate music and I enjoyed it. I tried masturbating and found that I liked it. Every Sunday, I went to church but I stopped listening to the sermons. I asked myself blasphemous hypothetical questions: "Could I see myself in a homosexual relationship? Would I ever consider getting an abortion? Did I see myself as agnostic?" More often than not, I gave myself blasphemous responses.

My friends and I rarely discuss social mores. People in my family assume that we have the identical principles that all pious, good Christians should have. Our opposing views confuse me. Now I carry around feelings of guilt about thinking the way I do. Sometimes, I feel like my liberal views are well justified. Other times, there's a voice that's telling me I'll burn in hell when I die. I also doubt the sincerity of my thoughts: Are my liberal views my independent thoughts, or are they just a silent way of rebelling against my parents and fitting in with more liberal-minded people?

Admittedly, I'm not chronically depressed about my problem. Most days end with me feeling happy about myself. I love my friends and my family. But in the midst of my normal pleasant life there's just always some inkling of this internal conflict that reminds me of my guilt. I feel like I've nobody to confide to, and I was even reluctant to write you this letter. I'm in a moral quandary and I don't know what to do.

Young and Confused

Dear Young and Confused,

It sounds like you are experiencing an ancient phenomenon. It is an awakening.

It is not rebelliousness. It is not the devil. It is the human spirit of inquiry and seriousness. It is the beginning of adulthood.

Adults experience doubt. Doubt arises naturally as experience calls doctrine into question. Your parents told you one thing. Your experience tells you another. You face apparent contradictions. The contradictions and doubts you are experiencing are the hallmarks of burgeoning adulthood.

Beware of the temptation, at this crucial moment, to replace one dogma with another. Instead, you must learn to synthesize what you are experiencing with what you have been taught.

For instance, on the question, say, of marijuana. Parents may tell children that marijuana is bad, period. No question about it. They may make dire warnings whose terrifying images keep children from trying marijuana. Then a kid smokes a joint. He experiences no immediate ill effects. He may decide that marijuana is therefore not harmful at all. He rejects one wholesale fiction for another. The balanced truth is that everything you do has an effect, and anything you do to excess has a cost.

The danger of teaching a child only one absolute and inviolable set of rules is that when the child meets contradictions she has no way to integrate those contradictions into her world. Integrating your direct experiences into your world of faith requires nuance. When your experience seems to contradict what you have been taught, you have to move beyond the literal and toward the metaphorical and the subjective. In a world of absolutes, those words may sound like the devil's words. But they represent experience as we know it, not as we wish it were so.

Meeting apparent contradiction also spurs growth.

But grow carefully. Grow, but grow carefully. In my early life I grew but not carefully. I grew with cataclysmic abandon. I experienced many sharp discontinuities of belief, as though I had been uprooted and transplanted several times; literally, I was transplanted. But also intellectually and spiritually, in the 1960s, my whole generation experienced cataclysmic rejections and rebirths; we denounced and we proclaimed; we attempted to create whole new worlds in the desert out of nothing but ideas and bags of seed. This too was the beginnings of adulthood -- our adulthood, in which by hard struggle we would eventually see how these jarring rejections and sudden embraces gave no time for mature ideas and faith to set.

So if you can gain from my experience, go slowly. If you are smart, and you apparently are, you will absorb information rapidly with remarkable retention; you will find yourself gorging on the world and its information; it will feel to you as though no problem is too complex; mathematics and science promise unhindered progress in understanding. And especially when you are young and your brain is growing, there seems no end to what you can understand. And yet you can spend your whole life absorbing information and solving problems and be no closer to the truth. This is a bedeviling and implacable realization. It sends some people into dejection. But it needn't. It is our world as it is. Beyond everything we know there is always still more. You cannot possibly read everything or know everything or see everything. There is not enough time. The universe is too big.

So adults recognize limits and nuance and complexity. The devout, the profane, the atheistic and agnostic, the meditators and seekers and followers and leaders, the political and the spiritual, the addicted and the sane, the lost and the saved, the doomed, the pragmatic, we all walk the same earth and face the same mortality. We are not the same but we are in the same situation. Some of us believe we have the solution, that we will be saved while others burn. But no one knows for sure what lies behind the curtain.

Life at its core is a mystery. Christianity offers a compelling explanation for this mystery. So do many other religions. So do science and philosophy. The mystery remains, compelling and terrifying.

I myself believe that the world is holy. Perhaps this makes me a pagan. I believe that we take signs from the world, that the world is speaking to us and that it is infused with mystery and power and that if we defy it it will crush us and we will be always walking against the wind in a sandstorm, but if we work with its currents, tacking with it, running parallel with it at times and across it at times but rarely swimming backward against it, taking the weather as it comes, covering up in rain and snow and exposing our flesh to the sun when it is warm, then we are in harmony with the world, humbly a part of it not apart from it. Whatever you call this is up to you. You might call it God or you might call it reason or practicality. You might call it atheism or pantheism or paganism or rootless agnosticism. I prefer to think of it as adulthood.

Had enough dogma? Try this! Fresh! Unscented! Dogma-free!

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